Turnout amongst younger voters in the EU referendum was much lower than their parents and grandparents. The most generous figure for the turnout of 18-24 year olds was the LSE’s 64%. If accurate, it seems more young people were engaged by the question of Brexit than any recent general election. However, with turnout amongst the Brexit leaning 55-64s and 65+s at an estimated 74% and 90% respectively, a majority of 18-24s were once again outvoted by their politically energetic parents and grandparents. Generational differences on generation-defining issues, and governments tempted into policies perceived as being skewed towards the old at the expense of the young, press home the importance of engaging young people in politics and, specifically, elections.
For a generation to whom political engagement can often mean simply sharing a meme or retweeting a statement, putting a cross in a box perhaps seems archaic and ineffectual. Ideas like basic lessons in secondary schools on how politics works have merit but are, in effect, ‘demand side’ solutions. What about actually changing what is on offer? For the sake of young voters and for the health of British democracy, the UK needs a new political party.
The current system favours two dominant parties, both of which have, over recent years, been unable to excite the majority of under 30s. British politics is dominated by an electoral system which, with the exception of the years 2010-2015, produces single party government, binary debates on non-binary issues, and a party system that pitches ‘left’ against ‘right’. Changing the voting system from first past the post to something like alternative vote could help, but is not a priority of the government or the opposition and does not excite the electorate. Better to take a look at the parties that dominate in Westminster but that are losing their appeal in the rest of the country. A House of Commons ‘Briefing Paper on Membership of Political Parties’ (No. SN05125, August 2015) put identification (let alone membership) with a political party at 10% lower than in 1987, with people aged 23-32 18% less likely to identify with a political party than the 73-82s. It is little wonder, then, that young voters are nonplussed about a politics dominated by organisations that, by and large, they treat with apathy.
It is difficult to pinpoint the sources of this alienation. Local associations dominated by retirees and an ‘analogue’ way of doing politics (think leaflets, stalls, hustings) are unlikely to excite a digital generation. But it could be something more fundamental. Studies suggest that young people are more liberal than their parents and grandparents. For them, the political offerings are slim. The Liberal Democrats alone simply do not have the MPs to influence the national public discourse. And, crucially, major party lines cut across natural political contours and deprive young voters and liberal MPs of the chance to come together on the big issues that unite them: the importance of continued membership of the single market; the benefits of freedom of movement, immigration and integration; gender equality; LGBT rights; ensuring the benefits of free trade are shared; an emphasis on investment in infrastructure; and ensuring we have an economy and workforce ready for the next challenges and opportunities of disruptive technology.
A realignment of the party system and the creation of a new liberal party, taking in moderate – and Remain voting – Labour and Conservative MPs, and all Liberal Democrat MPs, would offer young voters and voters of all ages a fresh political choice at a time when divisions are less about left versus right but about open versus closed. The divisions in the Labour Party expose just how unfit for purpose the current set-up is. If, as looks likely, Jeremy Corbyn wins a second leadership election, then moderate Labour MPs and voters may lose a political home. A split in the party could provide the impetus for a broader realignment.
Look to France and the same conclusions are being reached. Although light on policy detail, Emmanuel Macron is making the right noises about looking beyond left and right with his new movement, ‘En Marche’ (on the move). In his hometown of Amiens in April this year, he told those gathered that “I’m in a leftwing government, unashamedly, but I also want to work with people from the right who commit to the same values.” Both as a response to the struggles of the left and to the need to offer unenthusiastic voters something new, UK liberals should take note.
Brexit, the rise of nationalism in Europe and the success of Donald Trump demonstrate that the liberal values many young voters share cannot be taken for granted. They need full throated support and electoral representation from a party capable of engaging those with the biggest stake in the future.